Astronaut Farmer: Lost in space 

Mark and Michael Polish, who achieved creepy-quirky distinctiveness with "Twin-Falls Idaho," take the feel-good family route in "The Astronaut Farmer," their latest serving of off-kilter America. The result is a sugary, superficial fable that presents us with a dream that is hard to cheer for.

Directed by Michael Polish and written by both brothers, this don’t-try-this-at-home adventure stars Billy Bob Thornton as Charles Farmer, a small-town Texan with a hardworking waitress wife (Virginia Madsen), three kids, and an obsessive desire to be an astronaut. Though he abandoned his NASA training years before in order to save the family farm, Farmer remains determined to blast into space. To that end, he’s built a rocket in the barn, and, with his teenage son (Max Thieriot) acting as "Mission Control," he plans to orbit the earth.

Dull, the movie isn’t. Its family-life dramatics, spacecraft effects and a Polish moment involving weightless Lucky Charms should appeal to under-12ers. And the Polishes, echoing "Twin Falls" and its follow-ups, create intriguing landscapes.

But generally, this is the cinematic equivalent of the sugared cereal that its protagonist consumes, too simplistic to succeed as either an offbeat character portrait or an inspirational fable. Unlike "The Straight Story," the G-rated anomaly by David Lynch (whom the Polishes appear inspired by), "Astronaut" doesn’t present its eccentric hero in a light you can buy as he presses onward in his homemade vehicle. Unlike Danny Boyle’s "Millions," another case of a grown-up filmmaker exploring family terrain, it gives little psychological dimension to its kid-friendly scenarios.

Also problematic is Farmer’s quest. It’s hard to embrace a guy who might blow himself up and leave his kids fatherless, and who’s pouring the family finances into a rocket when the bank’s reclaiming the house.

As for Thornton, he can’t save things. He’s too sharp an actor to be bad, but as one who thrives when he’s got a role conducive to his edginess, he seems flat and suppressed in this sentimental sphere.

Madsen, stuck in another supportive-wife role, is called on to look radiant as her character lovingly backs her husband’s plan. She succeeds, but, like the rest of this movie, she constantly seems to be riding the dream of the wrong stuff.

The Astronaut Farmer **

Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Max Thieriot, Bruce Dern

Written by Mark Polish, Michael Polish

Directed by Michael Polish

Rated PG

Running time 1 hour, 44 minutes

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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